Monthly Archives: January 2015

Getting Organized To Get Things Done

As I begin my 10-month adventure as a Knight-Mozilla Fellow, this seems like a good moment to re-evaluate how I’m managing my time, commitments and workflow.

I expect I’ll have to make a lot of changes in terms of tools and approaches as I shift from spending most of my time on managerial and high-level design activities to hands-on coding and collaboration on journalistic projects.

Still, there are some basic things that I need simply to maintain an organized life regardless of what I’m doing, the main one being how I manage my daily activities and commitments.

I set up and plan to maintain the following:

  • One calendar tool with multiple calendars (Google Calendar)
  • One task management tool (Todoist)
  • One email address for all correspondence (Gmail)
  • One tool to aggregate URLs to read/view (Pocket)
  • One code repo/version control tool (Github)
  • Two tools for note-taking (analog + digital)
  • Two methods for sharing reflections (twitter + blog)

Tools Set-up

Calendar (Google)

For managing commitments and events, I have the following calendars:

  • Family calendar – for all my family-related events and activities (shared with my wife)
  • Fellowship calendar – all my professional obligations and commitments
  • Personal calendar – a mix of all my other commitments (from doctor appointments to coffee with friends and larger professional development commitments outside of fellowship-related areas)

I also subscribe to my wife’s two calendars and the official calendar from the fellowship so I know what’s going on there and how all those align with my schedule.

Task Management (Todoist)

I’m a GTD (Getting Things Done) follower so as long as I have a way to capture ideas/commitments easily and am able to keep track of what I’m working on next, what other people owe me and the overall sense of what needs to happen, I’m golden.

I’ve used a variety of methods for this over the years and have been very happy with Todoist because it accommodates whatever crazy taxonomy you come up with and has amazing breadth of cross-platform implementations so it can really be ubiquitous in your life.

My particular taxonomy flavor is as follows:

I have 4 main modes I like to segregate what I’m thinking about:

  • NPR

While I had not broken things down like this at all in the past, I find that it helps me to have things organized this way so I’m not distracted by personal stuff when I’m in “work mode” and vice-versa.

I also find it helpful to break down the last two instead of keeping everything under professional so that I am able to keep good track of them independently so that I am able to keep a good balance of what work I’m doing for what (which is one of the anticipated challenges of the fellowship experience).

For each of these buckets of activities I have the expected GTD lists:

  • Waiting for…
  • Next Actions
  • Agendas
  • Projects
  • Someday/Maybe

I also have a single INBOX in Todoist which is the dumping ground for any and all things that come up during the day and I just need a place for them to go into instead of retaining them in my brain. Sometimes things go directly into the appropriate Next Actions list if it’s super well defined but most of the time they are not so it’s safer to go into Inbox so I can reflect and properly decide how to handle it later.

In short, it looks like this:

Todoist taxonomy

Because of how ToDoist is set up, this taxonomy allows me to view all lists at a glance simply by clicking the big buckets I defined, which is perfect when you are doing a daily check or weekly review. Example:

Todoist list view

If a task is directly related to a coding project, the assumption is that the project is in Github and therefore tasks are managed as Issues there.

Once I really start doing work at NPR I’ll add whatever particular approach the Visual Team uses to keep track of to-dos (probably Github issues and/or Slack).

Email (Gmail)

I take full advantage of Gmail’s inbox tabs as well as tags to manage and organize how I process incoming messages.

Gmail Tabs

I find that regardless of how well it categorizes things (which it does well and you can keep teaching it to improve matching), it helps me to chunk out the burden of going through messages (because the volume is always greater than you have the time for). If I’m really tired I know I can tackle ‘Promotions’ more easily first and feel a sense of accomplishment that makes going through ‘Primary’ less painful.

It took me a long time to really adopt tags but I now love them, specially in combination with filters so that certain things are shown pre-tagged with their relevant project name or activity which aids my scanning of the inbox and helps me get a sense of what I need to tackle.


(I tried Google’s new Inbox product and it’s not for me.)

URL Aggregator (Pocket)

Pocket is the solution to ‘tabitis‘. You know, that condition that ails all modern web denizens where you have 47 tabs open on your browser with things you loaded but aren’t really ready to read but you *really really* want to or believe will read at some point.

Tabitis sucks as keeping those open tabs is a performance hog on you machine, increases chances of crashes and, come on, you’re really just kidding yourself. Pocket has saved me from this. I see something that looks interesting, I add to Pocket (from an open tab, from a tweet, from anything really) and I can even tag to organize it and further share with others.

Basically they took what Delicious used to do, made is cross-platform and useful by focusing on the main task of “I don’t want to deal with this now but think I will later” without going overkill in the organizing aspect of the service.

Just do it, it will save your sanity. Also, it has a search so you can find anything you considered interesting at one point or another. Enough said.

Code Repo/Version Control (Github)

I haven’t really started new projects yet, but needing to have code publicly accessible and licensed, this is a really great option. I have used Github for a long time, specially issue management and so I know I’ll be setting up some crazy tagging to help with workflow, but it’s too soon to tell what/how I’ll be using it.

Note-taking (analog + digital)

For the most basic of things I have the poorest answer to. I expect this is the one that will change the most.

I’m going in with the assumption I’ll always have a notebook with me to capture anything (thought I’ll try and use it mostly for doodling and sketching) and then some other method to capture more significant textual stuff, like notes from a talk, a list of questions, etc.

I am going to try Evernote for this purpose first as I tend to take photos of whiteboards like it’s my business and have been dissatisfied with keeping photos and written words separate in the past. This needs more exploration (I tend to capture things in 10 different ways then get completely scattered and lost about where things are).

Sharing Reflections (Blog + Twitter)

I know this seems like a weird thing to add to this list, but sharing the fellowship experience is central to the spirit of OpenNews so


There is a lot more to it, but in a nutshell:

  • I check Google Calendar for what’s on the daily schedule first thing in the morning and what’s planned for the next day before I’m headed to sleep in the evening.
  • I also use those two moments to review my Next Actions lists (add anything I want to do today) and check-off stuff I’ve done.
  • I do a quick scan of the Todoist Inbox list daily for anything I can take action on the next day (or that can be scheduled for later in the calendar or as a Next Action with a date)
  • I reserve time twice daily to process Gmail inbox and work on the items in my Next Actions lists.
  • I do a weekly review to empty out my Todoist inbox and Gmail inbox. I also take a quick glance at the Projects lists to see which projects didn’t get enough love and see if I need to create Next Actions for them. I should but never actually go through all my paper notes and physical inbox during this weekly review (need to create that habit going forward).
  • I read through things I’ve saved on Pocket any time I’m idle and this is how I get a lot of reading done (waiting for the bus, while the microwave is heating stuff, when my computer is booting up, etc).
  • I always aspire to inbox zero and only handling an email once. If I read a message and there is some action to take I try to do it right then or add a Next Action where appropriate (and archive the email). That’s why having dedicated email time works instead of constantly checking email.
  • I tweet constantly because it feels like a natural extension of everyday conversations I have and augments my ability to keep in touch with the broader community I am not physically close to. I only expect that to increase in frequency over the next year (if that’s even possible).
  • I will write on this blog to share things related to the process of learning, the actual projects I work on and anything else related to the fellowship experience. My goal is to have brief reflections that are frequent (every other week) instead of long pieces that are few and far in between. I’m not sure how I’ll continue to use Medium (which I started using for broader topics outside of my core work).

I’ll check back on this post by the end of the fellowship (and maybe at some point in the middle) and note what has worked and what’s needed to change.